The Mag This Week: Marital Celibacy

This week, half of The Mag was Books and Half of It was “It’s Personal”. I wrote an article on marital celibacy, which wasn’t an easy one to either research or write or contain in about 900-odd words, but I managed. The link to the article is here and you can see the excellent illustration that DNA’s Nitin Tuse came up with to illustrate the piece below along with the text of the article.

Thank you to everyone who agreed to open up when I asked for stories. Some people have written to me with their stories after reading the article and I’ll be writing back to everyone who has (eventually), I promise. I’m not qualified to counsel anyone and it’s likely I will be of no practical help, but if you need someone to confide in, my inbox has all the space in the world.

Let’s Not Get Physical

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 9.43.30 AMRecently, Rina* and a friend went to see an astrologer. Rina’s friend asked how astrology can tell if someone’s married when legal marriages are modern inventions. The astrologer replied he could tell when a ceremony that leads to a sexual relationship has taken place, and that was interpreted as a wedding. Since then, Rina, 29, has been in a quandary. “I’m not sure whether I should look at the bits in horoscopes about singles or the bits about married people,” she said. Rina’s confusion arises from the fact that hers is a happy but sexless marriage.

Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court stated in a judgment that “sex-starved marriages are becoming an undeniable epidemic” in urban India. “Marriage without sex is an anathema,” declared the court. However, some married celibates like Rina, claim they can do without any hanky-panky, thank you very much. “My husband and I get along fine,” said Rina, who has been married for three years. “We’re described as the perfect couple by friends, we’re thinking about adopting a child. We don’t need sex.”

The biggest incentive to get married is usually the ready access to sex, so a celibate marriage sounds almost self-defeating. However, there are those who aren’t convinced that sex is the norm in a marriage. “We’ve had celibate marriages for ages,” said Rajesh, 36, who lives with his “platonic girlfriend”. “It’s just that people didn’t talk about it. I’m certain my parents had sex only so that their families got off their case about having a kid. Once I was born, it was separate beds even though they were in their late 20s. It’s not unusual.”

Consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, Dr Minnu Bhonsle doesn’t agree. “It’s one thing for sex to wane in a marriage,” she said. “That is normal. It’s something else entirely for there to be no sex. Sex is not just erotic, it’s also symbolic.”

As far as Sujata, 33, is concerned, whether or not a sexless marriage is abnormal is inconsequential to her. “It works for me,” she said. Sujata and Trilok have been together now for seven years, five of which have been sexless. “Trilok was never particularly into having sex with me,” she said. After a couple of years of sporadic sex — “Weeks would go by without Trilok and me doing anything even slightly sexual,” — Sujata discovered Trilok had had a one-night stand. Sujata briefly considered ending the marriage, but decided against it. “It didn’t make sense to break up a marriage over something that didn’t matter,” she said. “Sex had been fading out of the picture for me anyway. Yes, it hurt a little that he’d been sexually attracted to someone else, but we’re good together in every other way.”

Trilok, 36, claims that the one-night stand was a “blip” and since then, he’s been as faithful and celibate as Sujata. “The sex has nothing to do with how much I love Sujata, which I do,” he said. “But frankly, I’m not sure how I’d get round to having sex with Sujata even if I wanted to. What we have is stable and it’s enough.” Both denied they were asexual, pointing out that they masturbate regularly. “Sex just feels too messy, both physically and emotionally,” Sujata said.

Sujata and Trilok’s equanimity, however, is rare. “A celibate marriage is tenable, yes,” said Bhonsle. “But how successful it is, is doubtful. Usually, they’re comfortable for a while, but the fact that their intimacy is limited tends to become a contaminant. Petty squabbles, insecurities, issues that are domestic and apparently have nothing to do with sex start playing out.”

Bhonsle’s experience is that some, mostly men, take care of their sexual needs outside the marriage. For instance, closeted homosexuals and bisexuals are often considered celibate husbands by their wives. Some seem to be simply incapable of any kind of sex and according to Bhonsle, this number is on the rise. “One of the important reasons, I feel is the menace of pornography,” she said. “Self-pleasuring becomes a preference and then, the effort that’s required for partner sex is something he’s unwilling to do.”

Both men and women are ready to talk to counsellors like Bhonsle about their celibacy, and usually women tend to blame themselves for the lack of sex in the relationship. Men, on the other hand, accept the absence of sex, but often don’t want to delve deeper.

“When I was married and living with my husband, I found it extremely abnormal. Sex was supposed to be a part of it,” said Milan, 33, who had an arranged marriage and has recently separated from her husband of seven years. Despite her efforts, he refused to consummate their marriage. “It took me a year to even mention this to a friend,” said Milan. “I ended up having doubts about my looks, my confidence was shaken, it wasn’t very pretty.” Milan’s husband told her he needed more time to feel comfortable with her, but changed his reasoning when they saw a counsellor. “Four years into the marriage, in therapy he said he has no problems with sex and that my insistence on using condoms was the problem,” she said.

Giti also spent years as a celibate wife, in her case to a man whom she’d fallen in love with before they got married. “I knew that he was suffered from a physical problem before I got married, but was naive enough to believe that things would change,” she said. “I felt that being in a sexless marriage wasn’t normal, but I didn’t want to give up very easily. So I stuck with the marriage for almost five years.”

The Internet offers a hint of the overwhelming sadness that both men and women suffer in sexless marriages. A user named Mrs India on Experience Project, a website that encourages people to share their stories, wrote, “I feel ugly and dead inside and it’s frustrating when others that don’t know my situation tell me how pretty I am and how lucky my husband is.” Another wrote, “If you think that it will be ok, once you’re married, if you think you can live without sex, without being touched, well, you’re probably right most days. But the days you can’t live with it, you better lock yourself in your house and prepare to sob until your gut hurts, because that’s what happens.”

Bhonsle’s experience suggests the longer celibacy persists, the more unlikely that the marriage will normalise. “Many tell me that it feels awkward after a while and they don’t know how to broach the subject of sex,” she said. The most damaging effect is that it tends to make both husband and wife less forgiving of one another. “Conflict resolution in celibate marriages becomes very difficult,” said Bhonsle. “When there’s no sex in a relationship, it’s 90% of the relationship. When it is there, it’s only 10%.”

(*Names changed upon request)


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